Artistic mastery normally manifests in musicians as the conquering of a genre or sound: Michael Jackson and his era’s pop, Brian Eno and ambient music, The Wonder Years and revival-era pop punk. Musical mastery can, however, also takes the form of the encapsulation of a mood or emotion within an artist’s work. Connecticut musician Dan Barrett falls firmly within this latter camp, with his expansive discography as Have A Nice Life, Giles Corey, Black Wing, and Nahvalr exhibiting his talents in capturing depression, mortality, and all aspects of human despair across a multitude of genres.
Barrett’s first success in attracting an audience was with the release of “Deathconsciousness,” the debut release of his and bandmate Tim Macuga’s project Have A Nice Life. Home recorded by Barrett and Macuga, “Deathconsciousness” is an 85-minute lyrical and sonic meditation on death and its role in the human condition. Drawing influence from the likes of Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, the album meanders through post-rock, shoegaze, and drone music, all in a cocoon of lo-fi production.
The album opens with “A Quick One Before The Eternal Worm Devours Connecticut,” a soft and melancholy instrumental that lowers listeners down into the cavernous dark of the album gently before transitioning into the driving bassline of “Bloodhail.” This track introduces the post-rock side of the album well, serving as an energetic and brooding introduction to what “Deathconsciousness” has on offer
Despite the grittiness and hazy production, moments of beauty break through the fog such as the harmonized vocals of “The Big Gloom” that beg “please release me” before segueing into pummeling drums and walls of guitar.
The album’s length and noisiness demand a listener’s full attention for it to be enjoyed to the extent it deserves. What seems like fuzz and noise on the surface of many of these songs opens up into richly layered and detailed textures upon closer listening, especially in a good pair of headphones.
Some of the best of what “Deathconsciousness” has to offer can be found in the album closer “Earthmover.” Beginning with a simple strummed guitar and vocal, this song soon explodes in a flurry of noise and massive drums. A pleading beauty bleeds through the din here as well, with more harmonized vocals that grasp at the hopelessness that simply living can offer when deaths inevitably is realized (“more than a symbol / more than I bargained for”). Piano chords triumphantly punctuate the song as well before giving way to the album’s roaring final few minutes of furious noise.
While “Deathconsciousness” serves as an excellent example of the breadth of Barrett’s grasp on despair, his debut self-titled release under the “Giles Corey” name speaks even better to the depth of his reach.
Conceived amid severe depression and in the wake of a suicide attempt, “Giles Corey” is a deeply, intensely dark album of inner turmoil.
The opener “A Haunting Presence” plunges listeners right into the hellish pitch black of Barrett’s head. A lone, sorrowful piano melody together with increasingly desperate vocals are dragged by a growing wave of distant drones to the introduction of a massive pounding drum. Whispers flit around in this darkness before erupting into hellish, gospel-like wails and menacing organ. The drumbeat continues past the wailing and is joined by sounds of frantic screaming and pounding on a piano that close off the track. Perhaps one of the album’s most challenging listens, “A Haunting Presence” immaculately sets the scene of the album’s angry, hopeless, and dizzying despair.
“Blackest Bile,” “Grave Filled With Books,” ”Spectral Bride,” and “Sleeping Heart” showcase the equally heavy, but softer side of the album’s industrial-folk. At the heart of these tracks is somber but beautiful balladry, but Barrett’s unique musical decisions (such as the stomp-clap rhythm on “Blackest Bile” performed on a gargantuan sounding drum) offer the songs an edge that elevates their emotional effectiveness hugely. Lyrically, Barrett is tragically poetic, avoiding whininess with his consistently heart-wrenching honesty.
One of the album’s strongest tracks is “No One Is Ever Going To Want Me,” a striking example of Barrett’s ability to write epic, dynamic songs. Soft plucking is slowly soaked with distant vocals leading up the song’s strikingly catchy guitar picking midway through. This gives way suddenly to a rapturous explosion of strumming and horns that lift Barrett up while he wails repeatedly, “I want to feel like I feel when I’m asleep,” driving home how desperately he’s clamoring for inner peace and how frustrating and futile that battle can seem.
If you Google search for Dan Barrett, you’ll find a smattering of images and videos that show Barrett as a completely normal, almost goofy guy. To some, this may dispel some illusion of Barrett as a musical dark prince, but it can also serve to make the sheer darkness of “Deathconsciousness” and “Giles Corey” much more relatable. The fact that a normal person has dealt with such intense, blistering internal grief has the ability to make listeners feel much less alone in their own pain, no matter how mild or extreme it may be.